A Moment of Jen
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Sunday, November 27, 2011
posted by Jen at 11/27/2011 06:48:00 PM

By now, people who follow publishing news are familiar with the headlines from last week’s Fridayreads brouhaha: popular hashtag revealed as a business, too! Proprietors apologize for not properly labeling promotional tweets! “We may have made mistakes, but we’ve got ethics!” they claim.

When it began, #Fridayreads was a popular hashtag that was billed by its founder Bethanne Patrick, who tweets as @thebookmaven, as a “global community of people who come together each week to share whatever they’re reading.” Last week, Patrick admitted that Fridayreads is a hashtag and a business both, a business that charges publishers fees from $750 to $2,000 to host giveaways, author Q and A’s, “twitter tours,” and post positive tweets about their books.

Now that the business aspect is out in the open, there’s another question to consider, one that’s bigger than the issue of why Patrick and her colleagues chose to disclose the moneymaking component of a Twitter hashtag on a website few would have occasion to see, and whether they really believed that disclosure was sufficient: namely, why does any of this matter to readers and writers?

My own full disclosure: I found out that Fridayreads was selling services after a new online literary magazine called Book Riot ran a story that criticized me and Jodi Picoult for the crime of being insufficiently pissed about the coverage novelist Jeffrey Eugenides received (yes, this is the life I lead). A few of the Riot’s employees were kind enough to tweet the link at me, just to be sure that I saw.

I read the story. Then I went to the masthead to figure out who was in charge of this new magazine, and was surprised to learn that Patrick, who I’ve met once and who has always been friendly to me on Twitter, was the Riot’s new executive editor.

I went to Patrick’s Twitter page, to see whether her new job was mentioned. It wasn’t, but her Twitter page led me to the Fridayreads home page (which also failed to mention Patrick’s new affiliation). The home page led me to a link to the FAQ page, and, deep on the FAQ page was the news that the Fridayreads services were for sale (the page also revealed that two of Fridayreads’ three employees also have positions at Book Riot).

How many casual readers and tweeters would follow such a serpentine path, figure out how Fridayreads worked, and make an informed decision about whether they wanted to participate and be counted not just as a reader but as a potential consumer of the books Patrick was selling? My guess: not many.

In addition to posting their disclosure on a website, while most of #fridayreads happens on Twitter and Facebook, the people running the hashtag failed to clearly label promoted tweets as promoted. This is a problem, too. As others have noted, the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection has rules spelling out how bloggers and Twitter users must disclose when they’re paid to endorse or mention a product.

The rules make it clear that “a single disclosure doesn’t really do it because people visiting your site might read individual reviews or watch individual videos without seeing the disclosure on your home page," and that promoted tweets have to labeled as such, with an #ad or #sponsored or #promoted hashtag.

I won’t speculate about whether the disclosure-on-a-website and subsequent failure to label promotional tweets correctly was deliberately deceptive or merely clueless.

But I do want to talk about why disclosure and transparency matter.

On Monday, Patrick issued an explanation/apology on her website. In the comments section, someone named “Chris” said this was much ado about nothing. “It was obvious that someone was getting something for hours of hard work.”

In other words, duh, of course the Fridayreads crew was getting paid. You’d be a naïve idiot to think otherwise.

That’s my biggest problem.

I don’t believe that the vast majority of authors, or literary bloggers, are secretly or semi-secretly for sale.

I don’t think that publishing is a private club run behind a locked door with winks and nods and secret handshakes, where insiders know the truth about how things really work, and the outsiders are left in the cold, guessing. It worries me that readers are going to come away from the Fridayreads contretemps believing that’s the case: that there’s a story that gets handed to the public, and then there’s the truth that gets whispered among the members of the club, who all know that of course litblogger A runs hashtag B and also works for magazine C and who don't think the public needs to know that a hashtag that presents itself as a fun exercise in community-building is quietly a business on the side.

In ten years as a novelist, that hasn't been my experience with publishing professionals, or other authors, or the dozens of literary bloggers I've met. Implying otherwise is an insult to every blogger who ever did an interview or a giveaway because she loved a book or an author and wanted to get out the word.

It’s an insult to every author who ever gave an honest blurb or recommendation, or tweeted, “Guys, you’ve got to read this” because he believed it, not because the publisher slipped him some cash or he expected a favor down the road.

It’s an insult to the authors who do interviews and Q and As and post advice and links and the stories of how we got started on our blogs, who do giveaways and pay for the postage out of our own pocket because we want to give back to the reading and writing community, to support other authors, to encourage the newbies, to celebrate books in a world where opportunities to do so are shrinking, and are too often given to the usual suspects.

It’s an insult to the bloggers who have chosen to monetize their content publicly and honestly, the ones whose ads look like ads and whose disclosure policies make it clear when they get books to review or give away from publishers.

Nobody’s running a literary blog or magazine to get rich. Most writers who maintain blogs end up losing money, not making it. Should a blogger decide to try to turn their hobby into a paying endeavor, nobody rolls their eyes or clutches their pearls. We're all used to seeing ads alongside a blog post, or a request for sponsorship on a literary website, or a virtual tip cup at the bottom of a post or a review with a note saying, “Hey, if you like what I’m doing, consider supporting it.” I don’t think anyone begrudges the Fridayread folks the ability to make money from their endeavors, if they’ve found a way to do it honestly.

But honesty matters – to readers, to writers, to bloggers and Twitter users, to those who’ve chosen to monetize their content in a clear and public way, and those who continue to do what they do for community and good karma instead of cash.

In the midst of the Twitter conversation someone wrote to say that I was wrong to imply that Patrick was dishonest. “If you knew her, you’d never say that,” he claimed.

I don’t know Bethanne Patrick or her colleagues, except on the Internet…but I believe that you know people through their actions. If they’re honest, if they’re ethical, you can see it in the choices they make. If they aren’t, no amount of indignant insistence otherwise will change your mind.

The Fridayreads people have taken the steps of saying the right things, of adding the hashtag #promo to their promoted tweets and updating the Fridayreads FAQ page to note that the hashtag is also a business. Here's hoping that their actions continue to reflect their words.
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